I’ll stop the world and melt with you…
While many consider the PlayStation Vita dead in the water, Sony’s neglected handheld has become something of a mecca for dungeon crawling RPGs. Sure, you may not find a wealth of first party epics or AAA experiences on the Vita, but those with a soft spot for mapping dungeons, battling fearsome monsters and going on grand adventures in dank digital catacombs will find plenty to love on the system. From the Experience’s dark and gritty anime-inspired epic Ray Gigant to the fanservice-filled antics of AquaPlus’ Dungeon Travelers 2, the dungeon crawler is alive and well on Sony’s pocket-sized platform.
MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death marks the latest entry in the genre to make its way to the Vita. Developed by Hyperdimension Neptunia developer Compile Heart, the game treads familiar waters as players take control of a group of five young girls with magical powers as they embark on a quest to save the world. It brings some interesting ideas to the table, but does it do enough to stand on from the crowded DRPG pack? Read on to find out!
The story of MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death takes place in the town of Southern Cross. The world is in a state of peril. First, the winds stopped. Then, birds vanished from the skies. Eventually, the sun set, never rise again, blanketing the world in perpetual darkness. Thankfully, as it just so happens this isn’t the first time the world has ground to a halt, and five Machina Mages are summoned from around the world to conquer four towers, perform a ritual, and ultimately wind the gears of the Earth itself return the world to its natural order.
While the idea of five young maidens tasked with fulfilling a prophecy and saving the world from mysterious ne’er-do-wells hell bent on destruction isn’t entirely original, it’s a decent enough excuse to embark on some quality dungeon crawling. As for the Machina Mages themselves, this mystical quintet rounds out the usual tropes: There’s Flare, the fiery redhead with an equally hot temper; Maki, the spectacle-clad brainiac who always knows the right solution to the party’s current predicament; Setia, the gloomy mystic with a parasol and a perpetual pout who prefers solitude; The innocent and youthful Connie who frequently serves as comic relief for the group; Lastly, there’s Estra, the game’s leading lady who approaches her duties as a Machina Mageage with a healthy dose of curiosity and compassion. Overall, the game’s main cast feels like it’s checking the boxes, rounding out the cadre of characters with all of the prerequisite genre stereotypes.
That’s not to say I didn’t like care for them – their still a solid bunch of characters and their interactions are frequently entertaining – but it’s just a shame that Compile Heart didn’t do more to make them stand on their own as unique characters rather than regurgitate tired templates we’ve seen so many times before in various anime and video games.
One area of MeiQ that does feel wholly original is the use of Guardians. Essentially giant golems that serve each of the game’s main characters, Guardians are mighty warriors which, much like mechs, can have their various limbs and cores upgraded with useful additions to help even the odds in the game’s labyrinthine dungeons. These upgrades range from simple swords and giant mechanical fists to more specialized weapons, like shears that can cleave through wooden enemies to beam rifles that can punish all on-screen enemies with deadly waves of energy. Equipping various parts that work well together can unleash even more powerful attacks, and each Guardian has a core with slots – not unlike Final Fantasy VII‘s Materia slots – that allow you to equip gems to further augment the Guardian’s abilities. You can even find recipes in dungeons which can then be taken to the Machina Factory to craft new parts, allowing you to turn your initially humble hulks into the ultimate weapons of war.
Overall, the Guardian system is probably MeiQ’s strongest component, and it’s easy to sink hours into developing your mighty golems into unstoppable forces of destruction.
As for the battles themselves, they’re the typical turn-based fare we’ve come to expect from the genre, albeit with a bit of a twist. Each member of your party gets one action, and you’re able to swap between each Machina Mage and their assigned Guardian with the press of a button. Machina Mages use specialized attacks, magic, and items, while the Guardians unleash the real damage with their lethal attachments and gem abilities. While a fight can continue if a Guardian gets destroyed, losing one of the leading ladies means the Guardian is knocked out of commission as well. Having said that, you’ll have to frequently think a few moves ahead, prioritizing between both the Mage and their fearsome familiar while keeping a close eye on each team member’s health and magic stocks. While it sounds like a lot to focus on, in practice it works really well, turning each boss encounter into an exciting juggling match as you cycle between your magical abilities and repertoire of Guardian skills in heated melees.
Of course, the heart of any dungeon crawler is the labyrinths themselves, and much like with its predictable cast of characters, MeiQ really struggles to come into its own when it comes to the areas you’ll explore. Each dungeon is set in a familiar locale, such as ancient shrines, haunted forests and fiery catacombs. As you progress through each of these multi-story dungeons you’ll uncover your progress on the map, which denotes points of interest such as locked doors, pitfalls, and other environmental hazards. Each dungeon follows a similar formula as you work your way higher and higher in each tower until you ultimately battle a boss who will join your ranks as a Guardian.
While that’s fine and well, the dungeons themselves are sadly very haphazardly put together. Sure, those who’ve played Compile Heart’s previous game have probably come to terms with the studio’s rather lax dungeon designs, but the crypts and corridors of MeiQ’s various underground lairs take the cake. Each area is filled with an unbelievable number amount and nonsensical pathways and sudden turns that make the dungeon crawling almost feel tantamount to trying paint the Mona Lisa with an Etch-A-Sketch. Seriously – it feels like a rarity when you’re able to take three paces in a single direction, which can make exploring each area a jarring and awkward experience to say the least.
Perhaps more frustrating than the bizarre dungeon designs is the game’s frustrating reliance on backtracking to pad the experience. While nearing the end of my journey in the fire temple, two party members were caught in a flame trap, forcing me and another team member to venture to a previously completed dungeon to battle a boss and recover a trinket to fight yet ANOTHER boss, which ultimately allowed me to free my party and resume my trek through the Red Tower. The entire endeavor felt incredibly forced, and similar circumstances pop up numerous times over the course of the adventure, forcing you to put the adventure on hold as you return to previous dungeons and perform menial tasks to move the story forward.
Though these numerous quibbles are annoying, MeiQ is still a solid dungeon crawler that manages to scratch that adventurer’s itch. The cast of characters may be comprised of cookie cutter tropes, but they still manage to be endearing despite their predictable nature, and I genuinely wanted to keep pushing forward to see what happened next in the story until its conclusion. Also, the Guardian system is a great addition to the game’s formula, adding a welcome layer of depth and customization to keep you hooked, even when the game seems to be trying its hardest to break your immersion with some pretty disappointing missteps.
When all is said and done, playing MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death is a bit like eating sushi from your local supermarket. Sure, you know it isn’t as good as the stuff at your favorite haunt downtown, but it’s (probably) not going to kill you. And while it might leave you feeling full and somewhat satisfied in the end, you’ll probably have to steel your nerves to swallow some of the more squishy, unappealing bits peppered throughout MeiQ’s experience. It may not be the best dungeon crawler on the Vita, but if you’ve already played through the essential DRPGs the handheld has to offer and are still craving more, it may be worth taking for a spin. Otherwise, there are a wealth of other dungeon crawlers available for the platform I’d recommend checking out before adding this one to your collection.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Vita (reviewed) ; Publisher: Idea Factory international ; Developer: Compile Heart ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 13, 2016 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $39.99
“Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.”